My own private iconoclasm: making the word flesh once and for all

After many many years of reading, writing and thinking, I have arrived at the rather unremarkable conclusion that reading, writing and thinking are neither important nor unimportant in and of themselves.

They are human activities like any other and, as such, their value is ultimately determined by other humans. They can influence others — if they influence at all — only because of the values and valuings of families, peers, and communities. They can’t convince, compel, or convert on their own. They do not have quasi-divine and human-independent power to influence humans and their affairs.

I mention this only because I suspect that I may have implicitly believed all these years that reading, writing and thinking did have quasi-divine powers, even I can’t recall ever explicitly thinking to myself, “if I read, write and think just so, people will have no choice but to understand and agree.” Why else would I spend so much time reading and rereading, writing and rewriting, thinking and rethinking? Of course, I enjoyed it, but there are many other enjoyable activities I might have pursued instead. The intensity of my dedication seems to imply that I was hoping for something more.

School, university and academia probably helped to engender this implicit hope for the quasi-divine power of reading, writing and thinking. From the earliest days of school until the very end of academia, I was taught that the correct reading, writing and thinking would produce and, perhaps, even compel the appropriate mark, degree, or publication. It was as if there was a kind of magic at work — a magic that inevitably produced success when it was invoked correctly.

The implicit hope for the quasi-divine power of reading, writing and thinking was also stoked in the early days of social media. Time-and-again, it was (and is) claimed that there is a uniquely correct way to succeed at social media. Do it correctly, we were (are) told, and the followers, likes, pageviews and advertising dollars will inevitably flow. In the end, we have learned that there isn’t anything entirely unique about social media. Like any other human activity, there are many familiar but not entirely certain paths to success and failure.

I suppose William Carlos Williams also contributed to my implicit hope. As a young man, I was entranced by the idea that he remained a doctor, lived in Paterson, New Jersey, and, nevertheless, became a towering literary figure. According to the official hagiography, he opted out of the lifestyle of a poet but, nevertheless, became one of the greatest. I assumed, at the time, that it was the power of his words and talent that helped him overcome the geography of his choices. I see now that I overlooked the true power of the relationships he maintained.

I am tempted to be troubled by the non-divine nature of reading, writing and thinking, to characterize it as a problem, and to draw some profound conclusion, but I’ve been down that path too many times before to make the same mistake again. The absence of God only seems troubling if you characterize it as an absence, but to do so is a mistake. That which never existed can’t be absent because it was never present to begin with, no matter how it might have otherwise felt.   

The only real consequence of this realization is that I must give up on an ancient and essentially childish dream. Neither the bug-eating mystic in the desert, nor the stone-throwing philosopher on the mountain, nor the house-call-making poet in New Jersey can, by the shear force of reading, writing and thinking, legislate on behalf of the world. Read, write, and think if you enjoy it, but don’t expect or pretend that it will have any more influence on humans and their affairs than counting blades of grass, memorizing all the digits of pi, or surfing off the coast of Maui. To influence human affairs, one must be a part of them. There is no escaping that fact of human existence.

Thus spoke Zarathustra.

Doubt: The Sunny Pleasant Afternoon of My Soul.

ClosedBefore I was a writer, I was a reader.

I suppose, in the mundane sense of the statement, this is true of anyone who becomes a writer. Reading necessarily comes first. In the same way that we crawl before we walk, we also read before we write.

For me, however, there is a slightly less mundane version of this statement, which may not be true of all writers. A writer’s words sparked in me a beautiful feeling and, because of that experience, I decided to become a writer. I wanted to spark with my words that feeling in at least one other person at least one time. There are, I’m sure, many other reasons to become a writer.

Fortunately, I’m confident that I have sparked with words that feeling in one other person at least one time. Most importantly, I have done it for the person that I have become through my writing. If nothing else, I have at least created some words that I think are valuable. I can put on my literary flight suit, stride across the aircraft carrier of my mind, and declare, “Mission Accomplished.”

I write all of this now because I’ve been having some serious doubts about whether or not I will continue to write on a regular basis or continue to think of myself as a writer. The cause of this doubt may be as mundane as the fine summer weather or the need for a bit of a break. It feels, nevertheless, more substantial and, more significantly, not anything like a crisis. It feels almost like a transition. Call it, the sunny pleasant afternoon of my soul.

It occurs to me now that doubt of this kind is a privilege and a luxury. The condition of its possibility is an abundance, both material and conceptual, that borders on gluttony. It’s rooted also in vanity and arrogance. Doubt of this kind is the ultimate expression of freedom. And yet, I can’t shake the feeling that writing, like faith, won’t mean anything if, in principle and practice, it can’t actually be lost or forsaken. An unassailable and rote writing is no faith at all.

When I first stopped believing in God, for a long time, I was afraid to say it out loud. I was afraid that I might be wrong and that, if I said it out loud, I would be in even more divine trouble than I already was. Eventually, I said it out loud. Then, I said it out loud enough times that the fear of divine retribution finally disappeared. Sometimes, you need to speak a belief to test it.

People lose their faith, I suppose, when they pray and they no longer feel like God is present or listening. Writing, I think, is a kind of praying. It is a practice of hope. It is a calling forth. It is an invocation. Perhaps, that’s it. When I write these days, it doesn’t really feel like I or my future self is present, listening, or ready to be invoked. Or maybe I just need to take a break. Or maybe, sometimes, you need to write a belief to test it.

At any rate, on the plus side, now that I’m writing less, I’m reading more, including fiction, which is a happy return. Of course, it might also be one more symptom of the transition. In my beginning may be my end.